I can’t do this. I’m too tired. My legs are on fire. It’s too steep. Why did I ever agree to do this? It’s insane.
That’s pretty much how my inner monologue went as I struggled to climb up a thousand feet of intimidatingly steep loose rock called ‘scree’ on Oregon’s Mt Joseph.
When I reached the top of this immense climb I was soaked in sweat and hungry as a pauper; and there was still a long way to climb before reaching the summit. Bloody hell!
Why hike Mt Joseph
So how did I get into this situation?
Gladly. My good friend Josh invited me and Carmen to a cabin trip at his family’s property in the Wallowa Valley in Oregon. We spent five magic days catching up on old times, learning to fly fish, drinking craft beers and eating huge feasts.
More than thirty people crammed into every available space inside and outside of the cabin and we had a roaring good time.
But we all went to bed early on the Friday night because 18 of us were going to hike up Mt Joseph in the morning.
Hiking in the memory of David – Josh’s dad
Josh and his father David had attempted to climb up the mountain a few years before but had to turn back before they reached the summit when it got too dark.
Sadly, David passed away this year and Josh decided to finish the climb as a tribute. He asked his friends to join him, and we hit the trail head at 9am on the Saturday morning.
Looking back on that day I am struck by the accomplishment.
I had never climbed a mountain before, and underestimated just how difficult it would be.
I imagined it would be a long walk uphill.
I was wrong; and by the end of the day I was hurting all over and blown away by how how deeply I had to dig, both mentally and physically, to climb Mt Joseph.
Just like in the best myths there were a series of challenges we had to conquer to complete our journey:
1. The switchbacks.
The path up Mt Joseph begins in a car park next to a lake. Thick scrub and trees camouflauge the winding trail from view below but once you are underneath the canopy the true nature of the trail quickly reveals itself.
The path cuts into the mountainside at 45 degree angles at many places and my leg muscles were burning right from the beginning.
Up and up we went, walking at steep angles to the right then the left then back again until the lake below looked like a pond.
The tree line fell away and we found ourselves in meadows of grass with the even steeper face of Mt Joseph looming above. We wolfed down our lunch, changed socks and made jokes as we gathered our strength for the next challenge.
2. The boulder pile.
A channel of massive boulders had fallen from the upper slopes and formed a river-like carpet we had to cross.
Because the rock fall was so new most of the stones were very loose and we had to be very careful as we picked our way over the terrain.
A misstep could break bones or trigger a rock slide – thankfully everyone got across safely and bushwhacked through a thicket of trees to the next section.
3. The scree field.
Imagine a vertigo inducing mountain side covered in a layer of sharp stones that slip and slide under your feet as you try to climb up.
The scree field was heartbreaking.
I was carrying my beloved HD video camera in a backpack filled with water and food and the extra weight was punishing my legs with unbelievable strain.
I came up with a plan to climb up twenty steps then rest, and for what felt like forever I clambered up the forbidding angle, feeling like I was barely making progress.
The sun blazed down on the rocks and made me sweat so much my eyes stung and my back felt like an ocean.
But I made it to the top – all 18 hikers did – and we sat exhausted for a long time, drinking water and admiring the view we had earned at great cost.
4. The saddle.
A few hikers turned back after the scree field and began the long descent to the bottom. We were up so high that altitude sickness and exhaustion were real dangers so going any further when feeling those effects would have been dangerous.
Carmen and I decided to press on and try to reach the summit.
To get there we would have to cross the saddle, which was one small peak that dropped down into a sharp ridge line that led up to another small peak.
The going was very tough – the path meandered all over the place and in many places we had to make our own way across boulders and cliffs with steep drops.
We reached the top of the saddle’s first peak and a more experienced climber told us we needed to turn back because we were too slow and running out of time before it got dark.
It sounds harsh, but it was absolutely true, and I didn’t want to hold anyone back from reaching the summit – especially Josh.
So Carmen and I turned back with another couple, Preston and Tara, and began the long journey back to the bottom.
I was disappointed I didn’t reach the summit, but very proud of getting so far as a complete novice.
5. The descent.
Reversing course on the saddle was difficult but we took our time and reached the top of the scree field with the sun still high in the sky.
We figured we had about two hours of daylight left to reach the bottom and if we maintained a decent enough pace we would make it before darkness fell.
The trick to getting down the scree field was do a ‘predator jump’.
Basically turn side on and leap like the alien monster from the Arnie film so when you land the scree gives way and allows you to surf along for a little bit.
I got the hang of it about halfway down and it was a lot of fun careening down the side of a mountain at the very edge of control.
The boulder field was a different story altogether. I fell and did a complete back flip, landed on my arse then shot sideways where a rock smashed into ribs – bruising them pretty badly. It scary stuff and Carmen and I were pretty shaken up by it, but we managed to calm down and reached the switchbacks.
My knees felt like they were going to explode as we stepped down and down and I had to grit my teeth and push through the pain to keep going.
The sun fell lower and lower and we wondered if our friends pushing for the summit were safe.
After nearly ten hours of hiking, climbing, slipping and sliding we reached the trailhead. I was utterly spent and when we got back to the cabin a feast of Mexican food and beer had been laid out. The seven hikers – including Josh – who reached the summit staggered in the door and the party started.
It was like end of The Return of the Jedi; a happy feast with victorious friends in the middle of the forest.
We had conquered our fears and doubts and each done something unforgettable.
What a day of travel that was.
As always, we welcome your comments.
What’s the toughest day of travel you’ve ever had?
David – Our good friend Josh has a cabin in the woods of Oregon and he invited us to come stay with him and learn to fly fish.
He showed us how to prepare our gear and tie the flies to the rods, then we went to a secret fishing spot on the rushing Wallowa River.
Carmen -The trick is not to snap your wrist when you cast the line – and to drink plenty of beer so you don’t mind how cold the water is!
I nearly caught a fish on my first try! But it wasn’t to be, so I concentrated on perfecting my cast – I did catch quite a few later on but Dave forgot the camera!
Dave – The real reason we were there was to climb this – Mount Joseph. It’s more than 9,000 feet high and looms above Josh’s cabin as if daring us to take it on.
17 of Josh’s friends, inducing us, gathered in the parking area at the base of the mountain on a Saturday morning.
We set out early so we’d have enough time to get to the summit and down again before darkness fell.
Carmen – We zig-zagged up what felt like a never ending staircase of switchbacks and we were all breathing hard as we climbed higher and higher. The forest was very beautiful and it was really exciting to be part of such a huge group taking on a mountain.
We took a well earned break for lunch and gathered our strength. We would need it.
Dave – Looking up at Mt Joseph I was intimidated. It was a lot steeper and taller than I imagined and we had to cross some pretty dangerous ground.
The worst part was the scree pile – I felt like I was pushing an elephant up a staircase – it was so steep that I took a break every twenty steps or so and it took more than an hour to reach the top.
Josh – So we just ascended about a thousand vertical feet of scree, which looks like this, and now we’re going to go up there.
Carmen – Dave and I didn’t get to the top of Mount Joseph. We reached the saddle which is about three quarters of the way – a hard core of more experienced climbers, including Josh, kept going when we decided to turn back and they made it. We were proud to have gotten so far, and the view was magnificent anyway.